Why women can't get ahead in law firms


Alecia Simmonds


Photo: Adam Katz Sinding

Many years ago during a brief flirtation with The Dark Side I contemplated a job offer at Allens, one of Australia’s top-tier law firms. A friend who was already working there told me a joke that, in its boundless hilarity, helped make up my mind. It went like this:

Three young women are competing to make partner in a law firm and the cut-off date is approaching. They’re equally talented and ambitious -but there's only room for one new partner. So a senior partner devises a test. One day, while all three are out to lunch, he places an envelope containing $500 on each of their desks. The first woman returns the envelope to him immediately. The second woman invests the money and returns $1,500 to him the next morning. The third woman pockets the cash. So which one gets the promotion to partner?

The one with the biggest breasts!

Needless to say, I took my tits to the academy instead.


I was reminded of this joke when I read recently that although 61.4% of law graduates are women, only 23% make partner in top-tier corporate law firms, 18% in mid-tier and 17% in small firms. The Courts are also rollicking penis pageantries with the Federal Court, for instance, having a mere 16% of women on its bench.

Now women have been graduating from law school at equal numbers to men for over twenty years. This doesn’t look like a problem that will miraculously disappear with time. And given that this bias within the law is likely to lead to discrimination in the application and creation of the law (through Judges or legislators) then we all have a vested interest in legal culture becoming more equal. So why aren’t there more female legal leaders? And what can be done to change it?

One common argument ascribes blame to low levels of women’s self-confidence. As Sharon Cook, a managing partner from Henry Davis York reportedly said in response to the stats: ‘Female lawyers not having the same belief in themselves as their male colleagues can be their biggest barrier’.

I don’t doubt that men feel more entitled to ask for promotions and pay-rises, but I also don’t doubt that men are more inclined to give other men those pay-rises. Why else are male law graduate starting salaries on average $4,300 higher than female law graduates? Law professors concur that it’s not because they’re smarter. Women dominate the awards ceremonies and take a larger share of the high marks. It is, quite simply, a reflection of the fact that legal culture systematically discriminates against women.

From sexist jokes, to pay inequities, corporate law is a boy’s own adventure story where a life of capitalist plunder pays off with a corner office and promotion to partner, just like Daddy! To say that the problem is with women’s self-confidence just blames the victim.

A more compelling analysis is offered in Cook’s discussion of the ‘24/7 work ethic’ or ‘legal culture’. To be fair, some corporate law firms have tried to redress the lack of women leaders. Some firms have targets for women in senior positions and most have adopted flexible work arrangements. But none of this changes the fact that in law your value lies in your ability to be on call and able to deliver services to clients at any moment of the day or night. The good lawyer is someone who works long hours, full time and with no time off for child rearing. And by long hours I mean sometimes 48 hours without sleep and working during your holidays. Some corporate law firms have beds and most have chefs that reward you with dinner for staying past 8.00. One of my friends said that her skin turned grey and sores started to appear after she did 14 hour days on an international commercial transaction for one month straight without any days off.

Weirdly, many young lawyers boast of their exploitation. They speak of working on ‘sexy cases’ which means sacrificing their home life for a midnight tryst with subordinate legislation. I know of a partner at a law firm who attended an 11.00pm meeting fresh from hospital with a drip still in his arm.

If the good lawyer is modelled on a man with a wife at home to raise children and perform domestic labour then women, as Joanne Bagust argues, are relegated to the status of fringe-dwellers in the legal community. Particularly women with children. When mothers return from maternity leave, they often suffer a catastrophic descent down the corporate ladder, being consigned to menial knowledge management tasks.  No matter how many hours they put in, says Bagust, they’re not seen as good workers. Legal culture doesn’t allow for shared love. The firm demands absolute devotion. The result is a classic case of private care-givers being excluded from responsibility and power in the public sphere.

 This kind of discrimination happens in a range of professional settings, where educated cultural elites are worked like 19th Century Yorkshire boilermakers. Journalist Lisa Pryor calls it ‘The Pinstripe Prison’. The problem with law, however, is that lawyers constitute a body of workers who, in their potential capacity as Judges or legislators, can exert extraordinary power over everyday people’s lives. They don’t just inhabit a world of structural inequality they have the potential, in related roles, to inflict these values on all of us. Just look at the proportion of lawyers in Tony Abbott’s new cabinet.

Of course, in an ideal world corporate law firms would not exist and we’d all resolve our disputes through collective consensus decision making, clicking or twinkle fingers. But until that day arrives it’s in everybody’s interests for legal culture to be less Boy’s Own Adventure Story and more Choose Your Own Adventure: flexible and with multiple options including to put the book down for a while.